Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Top Indians Prospect Andy Marte Threatens Boone

Cleveland's top prospect Andy Marte, 22, has been unable to usurp slumping veteran Aaron Boone, 36, because Andy Marte has been hitting not much better than Boone for AAA Buffalo. Until now, that is. Though Marte's overall average is still mired at just .268, indications are that the top-rated Dominican is coming around. Marte was recently named International League Player of the Week after hitting .346 with five homers and 12 RBI for that seven-day period. Though Marte, who hit 20 homers in just 360 AB for AAA Richmond last year, has been held back all season by the same flawed batting instruction the Indians used to nearly destroy former top prospect Brandon Phillips, indications are that Marte has somehow been able to start thinking for himself and let his natural ability take over. Look for the Indians to either bring Marte up at the first indication he can perform consistently, or else keep messing with his swing to the point that he digresses into a sniveling, shivering useless wimp, then pile him into the back of a taxi and send him down I-71 to Cincinnati to join Phillips.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Anibal Sanchez Will Stick with Marlins for Now

Following an impressive outing at Yankee Stadium, 22-year-old Anibal Sanchez likely will stick with the Marlins for now, and may get another start as soon as Saturday. Sanchez, 1-0 with an 0.00 ERA, who scattered seven hits over 5.66 innings without surrendering a walk or a run against the Bombers, represents Florida's future while veteran Brian Mohler, 5-6 with a 6.43 ERA, the past. So look to see if Mohler is passed over this weekend while Sanchez wins a chance to pack some seats for a home game. The 6-foot, 180-pound Venezuelan, acquired from Boston in the Mike Lowell trade, brings a 95-mph fastball to bear followed by an extremely deceptive changeup, though he remains a somewhat still unpolished gemstone who needs more time to hone his game.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Derrick Lee on Verge of Return to Chicago Cubs

Cubs first baseman Derrick Lee hardly set the world on fire in his first rehabilitation game in DesMoines, but going 1-4 with an RBI absolutely thrilled more than 13,000 fans on hand to see him. After the game, Lee, coming back from a wrist injury sustained April 21, had just one question for himself as he regarded himself in the mirror in the minor league clubhouse: "Why are you screwing around in Iowa?" Lee felt so strong during the game that in all likelihood he will blow off his second scheduled start against Omaha and hop the next puddle jumper to Chicago. Watch for Lee to appear in the Cubs lineup immediately, and none too soon.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Derrick Lee Disappoints Hundreds in DesMoines

Hundreds of Iowa Cubs fans were disappointed when injured Chicago first baseman Derrick Lee failed to show up for his anticipated rehabilitation start in DesMoines on Friday. Lee, who had been expected to begin play as early as two weeks ago, reportedly has undergone setbacks in his recovery from broken wrist bones sustained in a first base collision on April 21. The Iowa farm club has ordered a special No. 25 uniform for Lee, as the team had no jerseys large enough to fit the 6-foot-five, 250-pound corner, who wears size 52. There was no indication that Lee was unable to play, though unofficial sources at Sec Taylor Field in DesMoines suggested Lee had failed to arrive by gametime. The team said Lee has already been penciled in to start Saturday and Sunday.

Kelly Shoppack Era Begins in Earnest for Indians

Young Kelly Shoppack's appearance as starting catcher for the Indians, following the demotion of veteran Tim Laker to Buffalo, marks the embryonic beginning of Victor Martinez's tenure as first baseman and Shoppack's as top backstop. Martinez will remain the primary catcher for the rest of the year, as the change will come slowly at first. The Indians have little need to find fault with the team's current deployment of the Eduardo Perez-Ben Broussard first base tandem. But this is a glimpse of what the Cleveland lineup will be in years to come. Moving the switchhitting Martinez, who has one of the worst arms of any everyday catcher since Mike Piazza, to first base will prolong his career and enable him to improve his hot-and-cold hitting. Key to this arrangement is Shoppach, 25, who was acquired from Boston in the Coco Crisp deal. Shoppack hit 49 homers over the past two years at AAA Pawtucket before coming to Cleveland from the Red Sox. He won the Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher when he batted .397 with 12 homers in 300 at-bats for the Baylor Bears in 2001. Shoppach not only can hit, his defense is excellent, having only one error in 406 chances at Baylor.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Chad Billingsley's Callup to LA May Be Shortlived

An impending callup of 22-year-old prospect Chad Billingsley to the Dodgers is being prompted not by Billingsley's readiness but by a shortage of pitchers on the trading block. Dodgers GM Nick Colletti would have preferred to have engineered a trade and left Billingsley in Las Vegas for further development. But with 23 teams still competing for potential playoff spots, few pitchers can be acquired at a reasonable price, and none is necessarily are likely to be any more effective than Billingsley. Watch for Billingsley, who projects as a legitimate ace in two or three years, to be used as nothing better than a stopgap for now, replacing struggling Odalis Perez in the rotation. But as soon as more teams fall from contention and begin shopping starters, Colletti will try to acquire a more suitable established pitcher and return Billingsley to Las Vegas. . .unless, of course, Billingsley surprises by proving himself unequivocally capable of facing major league hitting. Don't hold your breath.

Twins Skipper Ron Gardenhire Still Doesn't Get It

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire finally has figured out that Tony Batista and his statue-like defense is not the answer at third base, designating him for assignment and recalling shortstop Jason Bartlett from AAA Rochester. Bartlett, who was batting .306 for the Red Wings, will take light-hitting Juan Castro's place at shortstop. Fine. But rather than put Jason Kubel in right and move Michael Cuddyer to third, Cuddyer will remain in right while Gardenhire mixes and matches another one of his infamous committees of scrubs at the hot corner: Castro, Nick Punto, Luis Rodriguez and Terry Tiffee. Whoopee! This is about the most idiotic use of talent since Gardenhire chose Batista, Ruben Sierra and Rondell White for tryouts batting cleanup while ignoring Torii Hunter in the No. 5 spot even as the team's win-loss record went into a freefall. Welcoming Bartlett back, Gardenhire now wants fans to believe the rookie had been demoted coming out of camp because he failed to take charge of the infield. The fact is Bartlett was demoted because he failed to field even the most routine plays. It remains to be seen whether Bartlett is any more polished now than he was when he left.

Good News is Bad News for Twins Brad Radke

Coming out of camp the word on former Twins ace Brad Radke was that his game had gone in the toilet because his changeup wasn't working and hitters were sitting on his fastball. Well, the good news is that Radke's changeup is back, according to observers on the ground in Minneapolis. But the bad news is, Radke's fastball, formerly clocked at 94 mph, has been crossing the plate at about 85 much of the time, and there's so little difference between it and the changeup that neither pitch is worth a flip. Radke has now given up an astonishing 109 hits in 74.3 innings plus 22 walks, hence his 6.17 ERA. Radke had reasonable performances his last three times out, but nothing special. Check his velocity to determine whether he is recovering his form.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Indians Kelly Shoppach's Horizon Draws Closer

If the Indians continue to struggle, a long-term plan to call up catcher Kelly Shoppach to replace Victor Martinez at backstop may happen sooner than later. The switchhitting Martinez, who has one of the worst arms of any everyday catcher since Mike Piazza, would be ideal for the No. 5 spot in the batting order and likely would prolong his career and be able to concentrate on improving his hot-and-cold hitting if he came out from behind the plate to play first base. Key to this arrangement is Shoppach, 25, who was acquired from Boston in the Coco Crisp deal. Shoppach was hardly a throw-in, having hit 49 homers over the past two years at AAA Pawtucket and having won the 2001 Johnny Bench Award as the nation's top collegiate catcher when he batted .397 with 12 homers in 300 at-bats for the Baylor Bears. Shoppach's arm is respected even among the fleetest baserunners and he had only had only one error in 406 chances at Baylor. Shoppach easily might have won Cleveland's backup catching spot out of spring camp, but was sent to the AAA Buffalo Bisons for the benefit of everyday play. He currently is batting .300 for the Bisons.

Juan Pierre Trade Speculation Just Pie in the Sky

Cubs manager Dusty Baker insists the Chicago Cubs still have time to play their way back into contention, so it seems unlikely the team would trade disappointing center fielder Juan Pierre to the crosstown rival White Sox. Though speculation about the trade is rife, and the White Sox have a glaring need for a center fielder with rookie Brian Anderson's pending demotion to AAA Charlotte, the Cubs have no one to replace Pierre. Highly touted prospect Felix Pie, 21, projects as a potential center fielder, but is at least one, even two or more years away from serious consideration for promotion to a fulltime job in Chicago. Mindful of the Corey Patterson disaster, the front office is determined to avoid rushing Pie from AAA DeMoines, where he is hitting only .260.

Aubry Huff Trade Strategy Backfires for Devil Rays

The Devil Rays, contemplating the inevitable trade of 3B/OF Aubrey Huff in the last year of his $7.6 million annual contract, rejected numerous offers from various teams during the Hot Stove League last year, figuring Huff's price would only increase the longer the team waited to deal him. Now prospective trading partners are looking skeptically at Huff and his .185 batting average. Huff's protracted slump makes him somewhat untouchable in the short term unless he demonstrates he can recover his swing, and recover it soon, particularly with suspicions remaining after Huff's stint on the disabled list. Already fallen through, or at least postponed, was a proposed deal two weeks ago in which Huff would have been dealt to the Angels for unnamed prospects. Talks with other teams remain on hold as well.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

HGH Issue Not Simple as Black and White

With doctors in California treating glaucoma with cannabis and prescribing heroin for terminal cancer patients in England, perhaps one day society will come to regard the present aversion to human growth hormone as quaint, much the way we look back today on the failed policy of Prohibition. When one has experienced the suffering of a Mickey Mantle, a Doug Drabek, a Mark Fydrich, a Glenn Davis and thousands of others, ethical questions are muddled by the individual's compulsion to improve the human condition, promote healing and relieve insufferable pain. No matter how many invasive procedures are adopted by baseball, the Players' Association or the government to violate the privacy and personal choices of its citizens, don't be surprised if one day the letters in the corner of your Wheaties box proclaim: "Now fortified with HGH."

Cubs Mark Prior, Awaiting Zephyrs, Hurt by Towel?

Of course, the simple answer is that injured Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, as he awaits a re-hab start in New Orleans, has been held back first by an elbow injury, then a respiratory ailment and finally his current nemisis, the shoulder strain. But pitching guru Dick Mills, author of The Science and Art of Baseball Pitching, suggests that the so-called "towel drill" Prior has been using since February is not only hampering his recovery, but ruining his mechanics. The towel drill, introduced by former Texas Rangers pitcher and freelance coach Tom House, requires the pitcher to throw a small knotted towel instead of a ball. The towel is held between pitching fingers and snaps on release when thrown to the plate, emphasizing wrist action to increase torque while reducing stress at the shoulder and elbow. Though Prior was reported as throwing 95-mph during his most recent five-inning outing at Peoria, the Cubs are expected to take their time bringing him back. The team has announced that Prior will appear with the AAA Iowa Cubs vs. the New Orleans Zephyrs on June 13, meaning he will miss the parent club's meeting with Houston on that date. If all goes well, it may be Prior's final tune-up before returning to Chicago.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Edward Mujica Forcing Way Into Indians Picture

In prospect Edward Mujica the Indians have found a potential setup man, future closer and backup for 37-year-old closer Bob Wickman. Wickman has always been regarded as a risk as he has had four stints on the disabled list since 2002 and missed almost the entire season in 2003. Mujica, 22, has developed a reliable changeup to complement his 94-mph fastball, and now owns a 0.00 ERA in 32.3 innings in combined stops for AAA Buffalo and AA Akron. Mujica likely would win the bullpen spot of Guillermo Mota, 35, who was brought in to compete with Wickman for the closer's role but who has been underperforming due to lingering effects of previous injuries. Mota is 0-3 with an 7.82 ERA. Mujica could be called up at any moment.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rockies Excel in Stranding, Doubling Up Runners

During the Rockies freefall from first place to last in the National League West, baserunners have been markedly timid, hesitant and sluggish. Frequently they are being stranded or called out on double plays when in scoring position. No. 5 slugger Garrett Atkins leads the majors with 13 groundouts into double plays, with cleanup hitter Matt Holliday not far behind with nine. At the same time, among NL teams only the Giants have fewer stolen bases than Colorado's measley 24, two fewer than Baltimore's Corey Patterson's total alone, even though the Rockies are built for speed as much as for power. Only Jamie Carroll with five bags ranks in the major's top 50, while the team batting average with runners in scoring position with two outs ranks well below the Mendoza Line. Manager Clint Hurdle for going on three weeks has elected to remove the green light he had given baserunners not because they were being thrown out, according to the Denver Post, but because they stood there as if waiting for the light to get greener. From now on, expect third base coach Mike Gallego to force the issue, sending baserunners more often to put the defense out of position, thus reducing double plays and stranded runners, plus increasing stolen bags and presumably scoring.

Jhonny Peralta's Spot in Indians Lineup at Risk

Though he is not a sophomore in the strictest sense, Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta's second full year of play has him experiencing what begins to look something like a classic sophomore slump. After claiming a full-time job last year with a .292 batting average and 24 homers, the 24-year-old Dominican has been less than mediocre this year, batting only .236 with six homers and proving to be highly unworthy of his No. 3 spot in the batting order. Manager Eric Wedge is mindful that Peralta, highly competitive by nature, does not have the type of personality to ideally cope with a demotion in the lineup, and so has avoided disappointing him. But as Peralta approaches the 250 at-bat threshhold, a traditional acid test for evaluation, Wedge may be forced to react if the Peralta fails to find his stroke and the team continues to struggle. Wedge will consider Travis Hafner to bat third by the end of the month.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dodgers Shop Rookies as Trade Bait for a Pitcher

With a number of unnamed scouts looking on -- perhaps one from the Florida Marlins -- the Dodgers started four rookies in Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Phillies, showcasing the prospects as trade bait. The Marlins continue to draw skeptical reactions to denials that the team is considering trading fireballer Dontrelle Willis, a California native and an ideal match for the Dodgers. But if not Willis, the Dodgers must find another hurler to meet the team's commitment to acquire an established starter before the end of the month. Rookies Dioner Navarro, Willy Aybar, Joel Guzman and Matt Kemp are likely in the trade mix along with injured veteran Cesar Izturis. With the demotion of starter Jae Seo to the bullpen, and struggling Odalis Perez occupying the No. 5 starter's spot for the moment, the back of the rotation is totally unworkable for a playoff run even with veteran Aaron Sele holding his finger in the dyke. The team has soured on the possibility of calling up prospect Chad Billingsley, who had been under consideration to rush to Los Angeles a month ago when Perez left the country on bereavement leave and Sele had severed his relationship with the Dodgers farm club in Las Vegas. Billingsley, 22, owned a 3-0 record and a 2.04 ERA at that time, having struck out 40 in 38 innings. But as soon as widespread speculation surfaced that Billingsley might have to be called up, he went to pieces, being saddled with the loss in a 12-11 defeat by Memphis in which he gave up six hits, three walks, two wild pitches, two hit batsmen and six runs in three innings. Billingsley's record now stands at 4-3 with a 4.22 ERA, adequate but hardly the sparkling stats that he could use to force his way into the majors. Billingsley has lost the confidence, at least for now, of Dodgers GM Nick Colletti, though he still is projected as a future opening day ace.